Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's all falling into Pratze

So yesterday I went to the "Dance ga mitai" ("I want to see dance/try dance") festival at popular Tokyo performance site Die Pratze (a Japanese pronunciation of the German "die Platz," meaning place, square, etc.) Die Pratze is like Highways or Electric Lodge in LA, or Links Hall in Chicago: an intimate black box space for non-mainstream dance and performance. Dance ga mitai is a festival of new butoh-based works that extends over 2 months and 2 theaters.

I was taken to the performance by a Japanese dance scholar with whom I'd been corresponding for a while via email. On our way there, he was mentioning all the people he would introduce me to, including dancers and dance critics. Low and behold, in the theater who should sit down next to me but none other than the legendary butoh critic Goda Nario! My intrepid scholar-friend introduced me and by the end of the night I had an invitation to an upcoming lecture and tentative plans for an interview.

The performance featured two extended solos. The first, "Dear" by Shizu Araki of Dance Group KANEOKAMISHIN, opened with the compelling image of a figure sitting on a stool arched forward unrolling mounds and mounds of toilet tissue from between her legs. (This image is muted when a toilet tissue roll rigged to the underside of the stool is later visible.) Not afraid to stay with repetition until the movement coalesces into a meaning all its own, Shizu is at her best here. Accompanied by sounds of older technology (keyboarding, dot matrix printer, adding machine) over an atmospheric score, the toilet paper reads as adding machine ribbon and the dance seems to posit a struggle between humanity and technology (however outdated), especially when the dancer wrestles the paper mound into the air and a strobe light gives a blow-by-blow account of their skirmish. Soon, however, the technology arc seems superceded by a return to childhood, the theme of the rest of the approximately 30 minute piece, despite the continued presence of the tech-soundscore. During the artist talk balk, Shizu explained that this piece represents her recent work to move from an improv-based performance model to one of choreography. I think it was this aspect that made the second half of the piece seem, well, safe. In between the two sections was the curious image of a kewpie-type doll hanging spread-eagle in a doorway, twisting in what passed for a breeze in the stifling July heat. The grinning doll was captivating, especially when Shizu's disembodied arm reached out and halted the dolls merry rotations by grabbing its crotch. No movement in the second half of the piece lived up to the promise of that moment.  Shizu's piece also suffered from too-pretty costumes that did not, to my eye, match the tone of her dance. Still, Shizu is a strong dancer and someone I would want to continue to watch.

The second piece, by Tanabe Tomomi's, "July Goldfish Bowl," opens with Tanabe on her back on the floor, upstage left, with her feet resting at a low angle on the wall. Thus begins her minimalist journey across the stage, which remains fully lit until near the end. She is accompanied by faint tapping sounds that were at first for me too reminiscent of the previous soundscore. This aural reference is soon sublimated, however, through a focus on her body's molecular movements that sometimes result in visible twitches or shifts. Her costume is a curiously (too?) lovely white lacy dress in the front, that in the back fastens with ties like those on a hospital gown, revealing a beige shift below. She wears a skin-color wrap around her ankle that looks perhaps too much like a brace, and a matching sleeve on her right forearm. As her micro progress continues, she is joined by a faint recording of Bob Dylan singing "Mr. Tambourine Man," as if the song were wafting into Tanabe's dream space from an apartment below, or perhaps from some other time. The juxtaposition of her butoh repose and the folk classic somehow works beautifully, making me hear the song in a completely new light. (Can you actually hear in light? Hmmm.) I decide then and there that any covers of Mr. Tambourine Man are woefully inadequate copies of the original. As Tanabe reaches center stage after what feels like 30 minutes, I begin to wonder what will happen. Will the dance just continue until she reaches the facing wall? The lights that cover the entire stage seem to suggest so. Just then, however, she begins to struggle to stand up. But unlike the classic Hijikata "can't stand up" movement that evokes broken and deformed bodies, Tanabe's movement more reflects a deep desire to not resist the luscious pull of gravity. She wants to stay low to the ground, and yet something draws her up. Interestingly, a critic I met after the performance told me that this is the first time he's seen Tanabe stand up in a piece in perhaps 10 years; no wonder she was so physically conflicted. Upright at long last, she props herself against a pole that interrupts the downstage space of Die Pratze's stage, and with her back to the audience hums a few bars of the Dylan melody. Black out. ...Cue inner monologue: "Huh? Why aren't people applauding? This is kind of a long black out. Huh? Oh, here comes a spotlight...which finds Tanabe still standing, but now flush against the backdrop, left hand raised over her shoulder and slightly caressing the wall. Backing away from the wall, the dancer tentatively, softly raises one foot, then the other, in a movement that grows into a shifting back and forth that draws in her arms, torso, neck. Dylan joins her again, this time fully present in the space, and her shifting and rocking continues: never vigorous, always gentle, purposeful nonetheless. She is in her own world: rocking, shifting, rocking, shifting, rocking...until suddenly she's not. Owari. End. Tanabe's movement aesthetic matches my own, and I found myself reflecting on similar pieces I've made as I watched her.

On a side note, watching these pieces I had the feeling of actually being in a black box for the first time. No emergency lights cutting through the dark here, no "places" lights. Until the dances started, it was really pitch black. It was kinda nice.

Afterwards, I went with a group of dancers and critics to a pub where we drank beer (delicious in this impossibly muggy weather), and ate yummy things like ume and natto maki rolls and egg cakes. All in all, a lovely evening! I look forward to checking out more of Dance ga mitai.

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